Documentation:ISW/Lesson Plan/Theme Session/Online/Kolb's Cycle: Abstract and Concrete Knowledge

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This online module uses the ISW BOPPPS model as a lesson planning framework.

Online Component

Time to complete this module

20-25 minutes

Learning Objectives

By the end of this module you will be able to

  1. Explain the difference between abstract and concrete knowledge
  2. Consider how abstract and concrete knowledge show up in your discipline


Have you ever wondered how learning really "works?" What is really going on when people learn successfully? Of course, a great deal of study has been devoted to exactly this issue, and in this lesson we are going to examine a theory of experiential learning developed by David Kolb that attempts to answer this question, and tells us what we can do as instructors to help learning happen. One of the core ideas of this theory has to do with what he calls “extension” and “intention” which for simplicity’s sake, we will call “concrete” and “abstract.”

Concrete knowledge is knowledge that is specific, particular, and to some degree granular. Concrete knowledge tends to be embedded in the context of the world - and perhaps the most immediate example of concrete knowledge is the knowledge you have through your senses - for example, the knowledge that a cup is sitting in front of you. It is contextual because a change in context (removing the cup) changes the knowledge. Another example of concrete knowledge might be the observation notes day of teaching in a case study, which might say how much time the instructor spent talking to students, vs how much time the students were talking in that particular observation, who was present, what questions were asked, etc. It is knowledge, in this case, of a particular, concrete event, and is only about that class, not about how classes in general are run.

Abstract knowledge is general and theoretical. It tends to apply to a great number and variety of situations, and in some way seeks to be independent from context or idealized. The Inverse Square law of gravity describes the behavior of gravity across the whole universe. However, to describe any particular gravitational interaction in the “real world” - other factors (such as air resistance or other forces acting on the body) need to be taken into account - which recontextualizes the theory by putting it back in the world.


Keeping these distinctions in mind, we would like you to try and develop your own personal understanding of both of these kinds of knowledge in the following exercises:

The following list contains knowledge as facts, skills, and abilities. Recognizing that there is some potential grey area, please sort these two forms of knowledge into knowledge that is abstract/theoretical, and knowledge that is concrete/particular. There are a number of different ways to interpret this, there are multiple right answers.

Briefly (1-2 sentences) explain why you categorized each as “abstract” or “concrete”. Some of these are deliberately tricky (but might seem obvious), so think carefully about them. Please provide your answer and rationale for two of the examples.

  • Riding a Bicycle
  • Painting an image in 3 point perspective
  • Using a memorized formula to answer a physics problem
  • Knowing the periodic table
  • Explaining what historical forces led to war
  • Finding a “good” vein on the first try for administering an I.V. Saline drip
  • Methods of providing emotional support for callers on a crisis line


Write down two pairs of abstract and concrete knowledge from your discipline. Each pair should be related, as best as possible.

For example, in philosophy: Understand a theory of morality → Express an opinion about the morality of lying

Bring these examples with you to the face-to-face session. You do not need to post them in the module, but we will be using them in the lesson.


Review the responses of your colleagues to the question prompt, and focus on the rationale they offered. You must reply to at least 2 other people’s responses. Based on what they wrote in their response, what do you think their personal understanding of “abstract” and “concrete” are? How have they elaborated on the brief descriptions here? Write a response to their comment, and read the responses others post to your comments. You do not need to respond to those, but consider what they say. Does what they say agree with your own understanding? Have they had an insight into your thoughts that reveals something new to you?

Respond to 2 comments that have already been posted. If you are early, and there are not many comments to review, please return later to complete this part of the module.

Go Further

  • Alice Y. Kolb, & David A. Kolb. (2010). Learning to play, playing to learn. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 23(1), 26-50.
  • Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning work: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Bransford, J., & ebrary, I. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press.
  • Kolb, D. A., & Kolb, A. Y. (2009). The learning way: Meta-cognitive aspects of experiential learning. Simulation & Gaming, 40(3), 297-327.
  • Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories: An educational perspective. Boston: Pearson.
  • Watkins, C., & ebrary, I. (2000). Learning about learning: Resources for supporting effective learning. London: Routledge Falmer.
  • Joseph Topornycky: Prezi Video on Kolbs:

Module Credits

This module has been designed by the Dr. Joseph Topornycky at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) at UBC- Vancouver.